Love Counts, Almeida Theatre, London<br/> Proms 2, 4, 5, 6, Royal Albert Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At the second opera from Michael Nyman and Michael Hastings, Love Counts could be the sort of ITV drama that goes out on a Bank Holiday Monday with Sarah Lancashire and Ray Winstone in the leading roles. At face value, the story of Patsy, a brain-damaged boxer, and Avril, a divorced mathematics professor scarred by domestic violence, has a heart of buttered honey. Avril (Helen Williams) teaches Patsy (Andrew Slater) to count. Patsy teaches Avril to love. And quick as you can say one, two, three - or one, two, three, four, five, if you're as fond of five/four time signatures as Nyman is - they're under the white cotton covers of Avril's Ikea bed.

In exchange for Patsy's memories of foster homes and prize fights, Avril has only one bitter anecdote: "I was married once", she sings over and over. Aside from some touching vignettes on how difficult life is when you can't read numbers - catching a bus, paying the bill, remembering your PIN - that is that in terms of the development of their relationship. Until poor punch-drunk Patsy returns to the ring for one last fight, which ends badly - for him, at least. For when Patsy is incapable of functioning independently, the equally damaged Avril has got what she needs: complete control.

A fortnight ago, Andrew Marr pronounced himself to be moved to tears by Hastings' libretto. So was I, albeit for different reasons. Ostensibly touchy-feely, Love Counts is deeply reactionary. The high-brow woman finding sexual and/or romantic emancipation with neanderthal man genre has been knocking around since the 1970s. Whether the outcome is benign (Stanley and Iris, Love Counts) or malign (In the Cut, Looking for Mr Goodbar, both penned by women), the subtext is that bluestockings are unlucky in love. As such, it's the entertainment industry's answer to the long-discredited Harvard study that claimed that educated females over the age of 30 are more likely to be killed by terrorism than marry.

Nyman's sax-heavy, propulsive, ultra-masculine score is both complex and simplistic. He quotes from Riemenschneider's catalogue of Bach's chorale harmonisations - Ein feste Burg is Patsy's leitmotif - fragmenting and repeating them to first kaleidoscopic, then numbing effect. As a technical exercise, it is impressive. (Especially to those who sweated through Riemenschneider as students.) But the tonal range of the 13-piece band is terribly limited, conjuring the laddish soundworld of a lager advert more than that of 18th-century Leipzig.

Hastings' words are set to naturalistic rhythms, yet delivered at a uniformly cautious tempo, as though aimed at an audience as slow on the uptake as Patsy. Though Nyman has scored Williams's role sympathetically, and both singers perform with great sensitivity, he makes Slater - a rich-toned, quick-witted baritone - growl away at the bottom of the stave in Frank Bruno-esque sprechstimme. Those who are pre-disposed to Nyman's music may enjoy Love Counts. (Lindsay Posner's production is cool, direct and attractive.) But it ain't The Cricket Recovers, and it ain't The Io Passion. It's a TV script with a contrapuntal soundtrack.

What with broadband, "listen again", and the humble transistor radio, listening to the Proms has never been easier. Hence I thrilled to Christoph Eschenbach's sublime, symphonic Siegfried (Prom 3) in the garden, was charmed by London Winds' delicate performances of Mozart's Gran Partita - now with added contrabassoon - and Jonathan Dove's neo-classical serenade Figures in the Garden (Prom 5) at my desk, and attempted a UN-style simultaneous translation of Glyndebourne's peerless Cosi fan tutte (Prom 6) from the lower bunk of my sleepless and suddenly opera-curious six year-old's bed.

With the exception of Prom 2, which made the Scottish Chamber Orchestra sound threadbare, the broadcasts have been of a high quality so far. So too, in normally capricious acoustics, was the live sound at Prom 4. Mark Elder's beautifully prepared account of La mer with the Hallé had two effects. Firstly, to impress upon his audience the intricacy and radicalism of Debussy's instrumentation. Secondly, to make Colin Matthews' gimmicky Horn Concerto and Sibelius's effortful First Symphony sound second-rate by comparison. I walked out into the hot air of Kensington quite dizzy with the beauty of La mer. Strange how we have come to take it for granted - as though Debussy had bottled the Atlantic in one artless movement, instead of painstakingly recreating it over several years in microscopic cells of musical colour.

Love Counts, Almeida Theatre (020 7359 4404), to 23 July